The Week in Books #46

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The. Week. In. Books! I made it through a big chunk of the new stack this week, and some really good ones, too. Let’s get to it.

1. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. This book was really beautifully written and extremely readable. Gyasi tells the story of Gifty, a young woman who goes into neuroscience to study the part of the brain that controls reward-seeking behaviour following the overdose death of her older brother. I remember posting about how to reverse an opioid overdose several years ago when I was thick in the front lines of the opioid crisis, and was surprised that someone commented that my statement about painkiller prescriptions leading to opioid addictions and overdoses was irresponsible/inaccurate. News flash, it is one of the major ways people develop dependence on the type of narcotics that can eventually lead them to heroin and fentanyl. This book describes how this can happen very well and in a very humanizing way. There is much sadness in this story but I thought it was a strong representation of how addiction and depression can take hold of a family and change it forever.

Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive. Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief–a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi’s phenomenal debut.

Penguin Randomhouse

2. Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz. I enjoyed this book, though it starts out with a few very sad events. The story jumps from the present day, where Beena has learned of her sister’s sudden death, to the past where it tells of the sisters upbringing. The plot unfolds smoothly, the characters are well developed, and the depictions of Sadhana’s eating disorder felt very real. Towards the end it started to feel a bit over-long to me, but it was a good read none-the-less.

Beena and Sadhana are sisters who share a bond that could only have been shaped by the most unusual of childhoods — and by shared tragedy. Orphaned as teenagers, they have grown up under the exasperated watch of their Sikh uncle, who runs a bagel shop in Montreal’s Hasidic community of Mile End. Together, they try to make sense of the rich, confusing brew of values, rituals, and beliefs that form their inheritance. Yet as they grow towards adulthood, their paths begin to diverge. Beena catches the attention of one of the “bagel boys” and finds herself pregnant at sixteen, while Sadhana drives herself to perfectionism and anorexia.

When we first meet the adult Beena, she is grappling with a fresh grief: Sadhana has died suddenly and strangely, her body lying undiscovered for a week before anyone realizes what has happened. Beena is left with a burden of guilt and an unsettled feeling about the circumstances of her sister’s death, which she sets about to uncover. Her search stirs memories and opens wounds, threatening to undo the safe, orderly existence she has painstakingly created for herself and her son.

Google Books

3. A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt. This is a beautiful, very moving and complex piece of work from Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt that consists of many short pieces/essays. The use of language is stunning and it required my full attention to digest properly. The final few pieces spoke about Colten Boushie (a 22 year old Indigenous man fatally shot in an altercation on a rural Saskatchewan farm), Bruce McArthur (a serial killer in the Toronto area that killed eight men from the gay community, primarily Men of Colour), and the Attawapiskat First Nation suicide crisis (a state of emergency was declared after eleven people attempted suicide on April 9, 2016). It also included many pieces about Billy-Ray’s personal life and experiences as a queer Indigenous person. Outstanding.

Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut memoir opens with a tender letter to his kokum and memories of his early life in the hamlet of Joussard, Alberta, and on the Driftpile First Nation. From there, it expands to encompass the big and broken world around him, in all its complexity and contradictions: a legacy of colonial violence and the joy that flourishes in spite of it, first loves and first loves lost, sexual exploration and intimacy, and the act of writing as a survival instinct and a way to grieve. What emerges is not only a profound meditation on memory, gender, anger, shame, and ecstasy, but also the outline of a way forward. With startling honesty, and in a voice distinctly and assuredly his own, Belcourt situates his life experiences within a constellation of seminal queer texts, among which this book is sure to earn its place. Eye-opening, intensely emotional, and excessively quotable, A History of My Brief Body demonstrates over and over again the power of words to both devastate and console us.

Penguin Randomhouse

4. Hum if You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages. The thing I’m enjoying most about creating a stack and then working my way through it is I am finally making time to read books I’ve wanted to but never actually gotten around to because I keep bypassing them for others that grab my interest. I’ve wanted to read this for a long while and I really, really enjoyed it. The nine year old protagonist Robin was very well crafted and likeable, and made a real transformation by the end of the novel. The story is told from both Robin and Beauty’s perspectives and moves at a good pace, also the setting of 1970’s South Africa during apartheid was excellent. I’ve actually not read much about this era so I can’t confirm how historically accurate it is but descriptions of the racial divide, homophobia and student uprising were very interesting. Definitely recommend.

Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s Johannesburg. In the same nation, but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband’s death. Their meeting should never have occurred…until The Soweto Uprising, in which a protest by black students ignites racial conflict, alters the fault lines on which their society is built, leaving Robin’s parents dead and Beauty’s daughter missing.

In the aftermath, Beauty is hired to care for Robin, and the two forge an inextricable bond through their deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty reunites with her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, so she makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences.

Told through Beauty and Robin’s alternating perspectives, the two narratives interweave to create a rich and complex tapestry of the emotions and tensions at the heart of Apartheid South Africa. Hum If You Don’t Know the Wordsis a beautifully rendered look at loss, racism, and the creation of family.

Penguin Randomhouse

We made a trip into Nanaimo this week that may be the last for a while given how the virus has been ramping up in B.C. over the last few weeks. I had a $10 credit at Indigo that needed using so I picked up a couple books; Rosewater by Tade Thompson and You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian (on the bargain table for $10). We also visited VV and I found copies of 419 by Will Ferguson, Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler, Look Both Ways by Jennifer Baumgardner, School Girls by Peggy Orenstein, and Feminism in Minutes by Shannon Weber.

Good thing I’m sufficiently stocked up on reading material because it looks like we may be headed into another lockdown for fall as B.C. is breaking records with our daily Covid case count 😩. Stay safe!

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